A trio of small-time crooks looking to swipe an elderly couple’s retirement savings get in over their heads in The Owners, a diverting if derivative crime drama with horror-movie undertones set in and around a single house somewhere on the English countryside. Nathan (Ian Kenny), Terry (Andrew Ellis) and Gaz (Jake Curran) are neighborhood boys who’ve gotten wind that a massive bundle of cash is stashed in a safe beneath the Victorian home shared by Richard Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham). The trio plan to help themselves to the loot while the geezers are dining out; Maisie Williams is Nathan’s girlfriend Mary, whose unexpected arrival on the scene adds logistical and emotional complications that multiply once the Hugginses arrive home unexpectedly early.
Ian Kenny and Sylvester McCoy
The Owners is a period piece set in the late 1990s, for some reason, and I spent the first 20 minutes or so really wishing I could recast it with the leads from Trainspotting, who might have brought some necessary vigor to the proceedings. Though director Julius Berg and his writing partner, Mathieu Gompel, have put some effort into character-building, the archetypes they come up with feel distinctly secondhand—Nathan is fundamentally decent though financially desperate, Terry is a soft boy, insecure and unreliable, and Gaz is all wiry, worldly testosterone. Mary is, well, she’s the girlfriend, and though she’s arguably a lot smarter than the boys she’s with, Berg and Gompel seem even less interested in what makes her tick. Williams herself is enormously likable on screen, but there’s only so much she can do with her ultimately thankless role as the conscience of this crew.
Ian Kenny and Rita Tushingham
McCoy and Tushingham are another story, and the film comes to life when they arrive on the scene. I didn’t recognize McCoy by name or on sight, but he’s a Scottish-born genre stalwart who made his film debut in the Frank Langella Dracula and went on to play the seventh Doctor on the original run of Doctor Who. He’s excellent as he calmly and politely wrestles his way toward the upper hand in this particular heist. Tushingham, meanwhile, is nigh impossible not to recognize, here sporting a variation on the long bangs she wore for her iconic 1960s roles in A Taste of Honey and The Knack… and How to Get It. Her performance centers the question of whether Ellen’s apparent daffiness is entirely benign early on. I wouldn’t go so far as to say their characters are better written, but the performances are certainly a cut above.
It’s all just about enough to engage your attention for 92 minutes, though the material feels stretched even at that running time with too much ho-hum dialogue; the characterization of Terry as a mewling, credulous man-baby becomes especially tiresome. Berg’s directorial style is mostly merely functional, though he does occasionally wink at the audience—a visual gag involving the too-short electrical cord on a power saw not only makes an impressive frame composition but also helps build tension as the film threatens to become truly grisly. Berg also attempts to increase the sense of panic and claustrophobia that one character feels during the third act by narrowing the scope image to Academy ratio. I found that effective, but also distracting. I felt the same way about the film’s denouement, which is impressively nightmarish but superficially glib. Like other horror movies made by people without a special feeling for the genre, it posits outrageous circumstances for the sake of shock value but doesn’t even pretend to engage with them on a human level. Then again, you could read the film as a perverse endorsement of love and long-term relationships. If its tongue-in-cheek lesson is that people who care deeply about each other have a strategic advantage over people who don’t, maybe a general callousness about the fate of their callow adversaries is just part of the joke.